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Union of Concerned Scientists: New Fuel Economy Proposal Starts Strong, Then Puts on the Brakes

April 22, 2008
2:31 PM

CONTACT: Union of Concerned Scientists
Aaron Huertas, 202-331-5458

New Fuel Economy Proposal Starts Strong, Then Puts on the Brakes
Pace Set in Proposal's Final Years Would Cause Fleet to Fall Short of Legally Required Minimum, Science Advocacy Group Warns

WASHINGTON, DC - April 22 - The Bush administration's new proposal for vehicle model years 2011 through 2015 would significantly boost fuel economy for the first three years, but then require only meager improvements for the remaining two, setting a pace that could undermine efforts to reach the goal of a 35 miles-per-gallon (mpg) fleetwide average by 2020, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

The proposal, announced today, represents the first phase of standards required by Congress in a groundbreaking energy bill passed and signed into law last December.

"This rule is the first substantial improvement in fuel economy for both cars and trucks since 1985. That said, the proposal starts off at full speed, but then puts on the brakes," said Jim Kliesch, a senior engineer with UCS's Clean Vehicles Program. "The administration should finalize the proposal's first three years and go back and fix the flawed assumptions that undercut the last two years."

Kliesch noted that the rule is still a proposal. Today's announcement will be followed by a 60-day public comment period and the proposal could be substantially rewritten before it is finalized. He expects the auto industry to pressure the administration to weaken the rule.

Last year's landmark energy bill directed the Department of Transportation (DOT) to set standards requiring consistent progress toward a 35-mpg minimum fleet average for new cars and trucks by 2020. Today's proposed rule covers model years 2011 through 2015. It calls for fleet average fuel economy to improve to 27.8 mpg in 2011, 29.2 mpg in 2012, and 30.5 mpg in 2013. Those improvements represent an average increase of 1.5 mpg per year. But in 2014 and 2015, fuel economy improvements under the proposal would slip to an average of 0.55 mpg per year, clocking in at 31 mpg and 31.6 mpg.

If fuel economy improvements continue at the pace the proposal sets for 2014 and 2015, the U.S. fleet would achieve a little more than a 34.5 mpg average by 2020.

The energy bill requires the DOT, through its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), to set "maximum feasible" standards above the 35 mpg minimum if they are deemed achievable. However, according to UCS, NHTSA's analysis underlying today's proposal makes several flawed assumptions that undermine potential fuel economy gains. Those include:

-- Projected gas prices that underestimate the reality Americans are seeing at the pump; $2.25 per gallon in 2015 and $2.36 per gallon in 2020 compared to today's $3.51 per gallon for regular gasoline.

-- An unrealistic value for reducing global warming pollution; $7 per ton of global warming pollution compared with the current $40 per ton on European markets.

-- Deference to automaker claims that some manufacturers will not be able to even meet existing fuel economy standards.

(For a list of key questions NHTSA should answer about its analysis, go to:

"Automakers today have technology sitting on their shelves that could cost-effectively improve fuel economy," said Kliesch. "We could blow the doors off 35 mpg with conventional technology alone, but today's proposal would leave us stuck in second gear."

A UCS analysis, which calculated cost-effective fuel economy improvements using only conventional technology, concluded that the fleet could achieve 39 mpg by 2020. To meet that goal, the 2015 standard would have to be set around 32.5 mpg. When hybrid technology is included in the analysis, the fleet could achieve a cost-effective fuel economy average of 42 mpg by 2020, leading to a 2015 target of 34 mpg. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded the fleet average could reach 35 mpg by 2018. (For the UCS analysis, go to:

Eli Hopson, Washington representative for UCS's Clean Vehicles program, said the proposed rule falls short of the requirements in the energy bill. "Congress enacted higher fuel economy standards because people are feeling pain at the pump," he said. "This rule shows initial promise, but doesn't do enough and fails to live up to Congress's intent."

UCS's analysis also found that loopholes in the fuel economy law actually will lead to much lower fuel economy levels than the Department of Transportation claims. For example, the flex-fuel loophole allows automakers to meet as much as 1.2 mpg of their requirements through 2014 and 1.0 mpg in 2015 by selling vehicles that can run on ethanol. However, once they are on the road, nearly all flex-fuel vehicles run on conventional gasoline. Because of the flex-fuel loophole alone, UCS's analysis indicates that the 2015 proposed standard is likely to lead -- at best -- to a 30.6 mpg fleetwide average.

NHTSA's proposal also addresses California's vehicle global warming pollution regulations. Unfortunately, NHTSA is repeating deeply flawed legal arguments limiting states' rights to protect their citizens, according to UCS experts. They pointed out that decisions by the Supreme Court and two separate district courts have rejected NHTSA's arguments and made it clear that EPA's authority to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act is separate and distinct from NHTSA's authority to set fuel economy standards. UCS maintains it is inappropriate for NHTSA to go beyond its authority, challenge the court decisions, and parrot the auto industry's discredited legal arguments. Instead of standing in the way of progress, UCS says the administration should grant the waiver to California and allow the states to implement their standards. The California state standards are significantly stronger than what is being proposed today by NHTSA, according to UCS analysis, achieving a 30 percent greater reduction in global warming pollution for model year 2015.

"The Bush administration hijacked its own rulemaking to deliver another slap in the face to states' rights," said Hopson. "The administration should respect the rule of law and allow states to protect their citizens from global warming."

The Union of Concerned Scientists is the leading science-based nonprofit organization working for a healthy environment and a safer world. Founded in 1969, UCS is headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and has offices in Berkeley, California, and Washington, D.C. For more information, go to


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